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Music review: Valery Gergiev conducts Mahler with the Mariinsky

March 25, 2010 |  3:00 pm
Valery Gergiev -- who briefly dropped in to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa Wednesday night to conduct an emotionally fraught, slow yet frantic performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra -- makes his own rules. “You Cannot Start Without Me,” is the name of a recent documentary about the Russian dynamo who is known for cavalierly showing up for concerts seconds before they are supposed to start.

But that is only half the story. This conductor, who once led concerts on both sides of the Atlantic on the same day and another time conducted in three European countries on the same day, can (and does) do pretty much whatever he wants, when he wants. In recent interviews, Gergiev has said he has finally learned he can’t do everything and intends to slow down.

But he’s said that before, and on Wednesday Gergiev, who turns 57 in May, was on the go as always. The concert was the end of a typically punishing Mariinsky monthlong North American tour. New York got Berlioz: “Romeo and Juliet” and a concert performance of the epic opera “The Trojans.” For Washington, D.C., Gergiev pulled Russian operas out of his hat. Elsewhere he mainly stuck to standard Russian repertory or “Trojans” excerpts. He also found time to make a last-minute appearance at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
In its season brochure, the Philharmonic Society, which sponsored the Orange County concert, had originally announced that the program would begin at 8 p.m. and that Rodion Shchedrin’s “Naughty Lyrics” would precede the Mahler. But the time was changed to 7 p.m. and the Shchedrin dropped to allow the globe-trotting Gergiev and his indefatigable St. Petersburg orchestra to hop on a midnight flight to Hong Kong, where they will play completely different repertory this weekend.

The only one way to survive this outlandish schedule is to live inside music. Gergiev, of course, knows what the individual composers are all about, but he does so much that things are always getting mixed up. He has a sound -- bass-rich and soulful -- that he applies to just about everything he performs. He is spontaneous, and he trusts his instincts. Mainly, though, for him, all music is Russian music.

Not surprisingly, the Mariinsky’s playing Wednesday was sometimes scrappy. Gergiev clearly does not lead his chaotic life in the pursuit of perfection. He has headed the orchestra for more than two decades, the players (many of whom are young) worship him for his magnetism. And that magnetism was very much on display in Mahler’s Fifth.

When he came on stage, Gergiev stood for a full minute, focusing his thoughts. The symphony begins with a forlorn trumpet fanfare, announcing a funeral march. The Mariinsky trumpet momentarily faltered, but that didn’t matter. In fact, the broken note actually helped create a dark, anxious mood that rarely lightened over the next 75 minutes but was always mesmerizing.

This was about as heavy a Fifth as could be imagined or maintained. Gergiev comes to Mahler backward, from Shostakovich, whose symphonies were inspired by Mahler but which one-upped the neurotic Mahler by being even more neurotic.

The progress of the Fifth is from death to life. A central scherzo is a crazy song of rebirth (Mahler wrote it after recovering from a serious illness). The famous Adagietto, so often played with commemorative slowness, was intended by the composer to be somewhat sweeter, a song of love. The Finale musters joy and triumph, if uneasily.

Gergiev would have little of that. His is crazy Mahler, Shostakovich-ized Mahler, Russian Mahler. The intensity never let up. The conductor built huge climaxes with unerring momentum, but they were not the road to catharsis. The amber orchestral sound favored lower-pitched instruments. Often the violins were drowned out, the flutes glaring and the trumpets brittle.

But there was beauty. The Adagietto was no love song and, for that matter, no Adagietto, so Gergiev did not take it slow. He doesn’t use a baton and his trademark gesture is wiggling his fingers, a trademark that has become increasingly exaggerated. In this slow movement, which is for strings and harp, he was wiggling for all he was worth, inspiring the strings to play with exaggerated vibrato as if they had contracted a communal palsy. Right or wrong, the result was very moving.

The Finale had less the feel of resolution than of resignation. The weight was not lifted and there was no triumph. But the hugeness of the ending was overpowering in its raw determination.

No one else conducts Mahler like this. No other orchestra plays Mahler like this. Maybe the reason Mariinsky can’t start without Gergiev is because he -- and they -- never stop. 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra Wednesday night. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times